“A way of life based on protection and care.” This is what Pope Francis called the youth of Peru to during his apostolic journey there in January. Through the support of the Center for Ethics and Culture, two other Notre Dame students and I had the privilege of spending our spring break witnessing this way of life firsthand.

Motivated by Pope Francis’ message during his visit and by the 2017 Global Youth Wellbeing Index, we wished to investigate the wellbeing and happiness of the Peruvian youth. Among the countries surveyed in the Index, Peru ranked first in South America and 11th worldwide for levels of wellbeing (measured by levels of stress, educational opportunity, and other indicators).

Here in the United States, we supposedly have it all: smart phones, high-speed Internet, and a culture of consumerism that encourages everyone to acquire as many material things as they want. But after examining the data, we felt that American young people might have something to learn from this third world country. How do people of lesser economic, social, and material resources find happiness?

Our week in Peru helped us find some answers. From the moment we landed, we experienced the embrace of Peruvian culture. The aunt and uncle of one of our group members picked us up from the airport in Lima, which was over half an hour away from their home in Miraflores. Two days later, some cousins took the whole day to show us the beach and nighttime beauty of Barranco. Another cousin and his wife spent their entire Tuesday with us in downtown Lima. On Wednesday, we enjoyed a family get together with dozens of relatives.

Even though our friend had met some of these relatives only once and many of them not at all, they each showered her and the other two of us with affection and generously dedicated their time to taking care of us. They told us which neighborhoods we should and should not see, and they made sure to introduce us to Peru’s finest cuisine. It was a prime example of “a way of life based on protection and care.”

These experiences began to unveil for us a key component of the happiness that dwells in Peru: the family. As a cultural norm, family stands as a central piece of Peruvian life. We encountered this attitude outside of our friend’s family circle as well. Some university students we spoke with emphasized that often Sunday is reserved as a family day, and many young people do not plan to get together with friends on that day. It is also common for people to live in their parents’ house until they get married themselves, which they tend to do in their late twenties or early thirties.

Of course, these practices do not apply to every family in Peru, but we gathered that generally, they are more accepted as a cultural norm than they are in mainstream American culture.

A visit to a Holy Cross organization called the Instituto de Pastoral de la Familia (INFAM), or the “Pastoral Institute for the Family,” further convinced us that the family is fundamental to the Peruvian conception of happiness. Two staff members who work with young people told us that when they ask their students what makes them happy, the vast majority respond, “Being with my family.”

True, Peru has many political and social issues, as most countries do. At the same time, its cultural commitment to family sets a widespread standard of unity and personal support that, although present for some people in the United States, simply is not the norm here.

In American society, we often encounter families who rarely eat dinner together. Young people often face pressure to take on as many activities as possible, move away from home, be independent, and achieve financial stability and success. Our culture is one that places individualism on a pedestal.

By contrast, the supportive network of family is what fuels the Peruvian people’s joy. Even in the harsh poverty in the hills of San Juan de Lurigancho, which we visited, we found that the lack of material resources did not detract from the people’s happiness. Thus, phrases like Allí en el cerro pero feliz (“I live there on the hill, but I am happy”) prevail.

Although it is good to develop the ability to make one’s own decisions and grow in responsibility, that attitude must not exclude the rock-like support that family offers the human person, regardless of external circumstances. I hope that the lessons we gained from this trip will help us and our friends appreciate our families more and be more generous in spending time with others, especially our families. This is an essential ingredient for a happy culture.

Sophia Buono is a senior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in Education, Schooling, and Society. She recently ventured to the University Hair Salon in the basement of LaFun and was pleasantly surprised with the outcome. To find out more, email her at sbuono@nd.edu.